On Definitions: Capitalism.

Recently on my tumblr I was drawn into a couple of (unrelated) discussions about the usefulness of definitions. I think my thoughts on the matter warrant an extended discussion in their own right here.

It’s pretty clear that, much as many of us would like it to be otherwise, most words we use don’t have very clear-cut, singular, unambiguously definable meanings. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s attempts to provide such a definition for the word game — a simple, uncontroversial, common word, after all — are the archetypal example here. Not all games are competitive, not all involve winning, not all are entertaining or amusing. (In fact, an example of a game that is none of these things will make an appearance later in this post). By contrast, what makes dance, or politics, or sex not games? You simply can’t do it. It doesn’t mean the word has no real meaning, only that you can’t encapsulate it in a neat definition.

And now imagine what trouble we run into when it comes to words which are emotionally loaded, or politically controversial, or just plain complicated. Two such words came up in tumblr discussion yesterday: capitalism and planet. This post grew a bit long in the writing, so I’ll deal with the first of these for now. The second will have to wait for next time.

Capitalism is very broadly applied. The Wikipedia article on the subject lists over a hundred subtopics in its opening sidebar. The discussion was over whether solarpunk — a new aesthetic movement revolving around sustainable technology, organic design and empowering communities — was, or must necessarily be, anti-capitalist, which led in turn to debate over whether capitalism was inherently exploitative. My comments, I think, bear repeating here:

Capitalism, as in a system under which goods are exchanged on markets and the means of production are not centrally planned, is not inherently exploitative; indeed, the alternative is more likely to be so. Capitalism, as in a system under which human rights are exchanged on markets and the means of production are owned by absentee shareholders, is very probably inherently exploitative. Therefore: taboo the word capitalism. Talk about the issues of this form of ownership or that type of exchange without using the word.

The concept of tabooing a controversial word is derived from a party game similar to Charades or Articulate, in which players must have their partners guess a certain word without using the word (or a handful of related ones). I went on to explain:

Someone who objects to the latter thing may end up in a fruitless argument with someone who wishes to defend the former thing, and without eliminating the word from their discussion, they may not realise where the misunderstanding arose from. Tabooing a word, especially one like capitalism that has many implications and ideological flavourings and nuances and takes in a whole range of real-world phenomena … is a well-established and very useful method of cutting straight to the core of an argument.

As a tool for argument, the game of taboo was popularised in its modern form in this article by Eliezer Yudkowsky, although the basic idea predates him. Rather than prefacing your arguments with gerrymandered or hyper-specific or just very complex definitions, see if you can get away with just not using the words you were trying to define.

There are, however, cases where crisp, specific definitions are very useful, and where deliberately deviating from them is obfuscatory, unhelpful and can sometimes mask something quite sinister. I’ll turn to these cases when I discuss the matter of planet tomorrow.


3 thoughts on “On Definitions: Capitalism.

  1. Hum… there is something very weird in the 2 definitions for capitalism you give in your comment as the 2 possible definitions for capitalism: none of them includes the idea of capital as being central…
    Capitalism is not, in fact, about market (and what does a market that exchanges human rights mean? (honest question I actually don’t understand that)), it is about capital, the “means of production” (they are in your second definition). There are and have been economical systems with markets which arent/weren’t capitalism.
    Capitalism is a system where the means of production, the capital, are not posseded by those who work, so those who work have to let those who own the mean of production take some part of the value they’ve produce with their work. It can be “absentee sharholders” taking a shitload of that value, it can be very present factoryowners who takes as much value as they can, letting those who work with just enough to go by (see industrial countries between industrial revolution and labour laws) but it can also be a small, family owned buisness which redistributes that value quite fairly between everybody. It’s still capitalism.
    “Capitalism” *is* a loaded word, but that does not mean that a solid, rational definition of it doesn’t exist and that we can’t use it to debate if that means capitalism is inherently exploitative or not.
    It’s like somebody said “planets are big things floating up in space and which are not on fire” and somebody else said “no planets are those things my middle school textbook called planets” “oh well then if we don’t agree on the definition of planets we cannot discuss if Pluto is or isn’t one”. And you’re like “yes we CAN discuss it because a good, solid definition acutally exists!”.

    Sorry for the lenght of that comment, I don’t want to sound rude or know-it-all or anything, but I’m actually very very surprised that there is a post about the definition of capitalism that doens’t include who owns the capital.

    (also please excuse any grammatical mistake or anything, English is not my native language and I’m very far from fluent in it).
    Have a good day,

    • Hi Senjak. Thanks for your comment. The examples I gave of what people might mean by “capitalism” are far from exhaustive. That they don’t include any reference to capital is not the least of their problems. The main problem I was trying to address is that a lot of people have very different ideas about what capitalism “in fact” is about, and this leads them to argue at cross-purposes. Your focus on the means of production is good, but doesn’t that then mean that communism, where the means of production are owned by the state and still not the workers, is capitalist? Certainly that’s not what most people would use the word to mean, and even more certainly it’s not what the word intuitively implies.

      You’re right that capitalism takes in a whole lot of different systems and ways of doing things. It’s also true that it can be used alongside all sorts of social security systems, regulatory paradigms and so on. What usually happens (and what I observed in the actual debate which inspired my post) is that people will use the word capitalism to refer to specific capitalist systems, and when two people are using the word to refer to very different capitalist systems, then they’re not actually arguing about capitalism “itself” (whatever that might be) but about something else — if, at the end of the day, they disagree at all.

      It would be possible to give a solid, rational definition of the word and then debate on that definition, but unfortunately that’s not how most people work. They’ll still carry the emotional loading and implications that they’re used to giving the word. It’s probably more useful to play the taboo game. In an economics textbook, for example, you’d start from first principles with defining words like capitalism; but even so, you’d have to have a caveat noting that it is used for a whole range of political systems, in which the rôle of capital is only a small element. I’ll be putting up a post on how things work differently in science (where clear and precise distinctions are imperative and the tabooing trick less useful) using the Pluto example very soon.

      As a side note, the sort of thing I meant by a market on which human rights are exchanged might be someone selling a kidney, or trafficking in slaves, but it could also be one where your healthcare outcomes are determined by your ability to pay.

  2. Asking the Right Questions. – Phillip Krohn

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